2020 has been a year we all would like to forget. With an unprecedented and ceaseless string of events from natural disasters, racial and societal injustice and unrest, economic uncertainty, and of course a global pandemic. Stress is on everyone’s doorstep. For those who were already dealing with difficult and anxiety producing experiences, the current challenges have revealed how vulnerable we all are. For teachers who report having some of the highest levels of job stress and burnout, the impact of this moment is palpable. The many uncertainties have left teachers scrambling to figure it all out and to have to deal not only with the trauma, stress, confusion, and uncertainty of their students, but also themselves. In the midst of so much turmoil, teachers and administrators are left asking, what do we do?
Let’s start by taking a breath and recognizing how important it is that teachers be able to help themselves before they can help the children in their care. When our brains are cluttered with stress and anxiety, we are unable to engage, think, problem solve, focus, and manage even familiar tasks. Our sense of satisfaction and enjoyment of our roles and work are lost amidst the piling on of unmanaged stress and anxiety. At Housman Institute, we work to help teachers help themselves with the understanding that before teachers can be effective, teach with joy, care for their students, and model the behaviors of engagement and coping skills, they must first have the tools of emotional understanding and intelligence for themselves.
We know that teacher stress directly impacts their students. Children are emotional detectives who pick up on the emotions of those around them, especially their adult caregivers. If teachers are stressed and their feelings are left unsupported and unmanaged, the children they teach will also be stressed. Witnessing familiar adults who are shouldering new burdens can be unsettling for children who look to these adults for modeling appropriate coping strategies when emotions are heightened. Teachers who are unable to manage, express, and deal with their emotions appropriately and effectively can unintentionally promote an unstable and unsupported teaching environment for their students. In addition, when teachers are not attending to their own emotions, they are susceptible to heightened stress and burnout.
So how can we help teachers help themselves? As Christina Cipriano and Marc Brackett discuss in their article, “Teachers Are Anxious and Overwhelmed. They Need SEL Now More Than Ever,” teachers who have developed greater emotional skills such as the ability to recognize and label their emotions, understand the underlying causes of emotions and their subsequent behavioral outcomes, express their emotions appropriately, and self-regulate effectively are less likely to experience teacher burnout.
It is important that school directors and administrators work to support and recognize their teachers at this moment and also understand how the nature of teaching itself impacts teachers’ mental health and well-being. Introducing channels of support including incorporating professional development programs that address teachers' own emotionality can not only help teachers and therefore the children in their care, but the overall atmosphere of the school community. Our program, begin to ECSEL was built to ensure that teachers have the critical tools to address their own emotionality and well-being so they can therefore have a more positive sense of self, be engaged, and better model and guide their students in their emotional growth.
In the research article, “Empirically Derived Profiles of Teacher Stress, Burnout, Self-Efficacy, and Coping and Associated Student Outcomes,” Keith C. Herman, Jal’et Hickmon-Rosa and Wendy M. Reinke found that teacher stress and teachers' ability to cope and manage emotions can either positively or negatively inform student outcomes. Unmanaged teacher stress was linked to disruptive behaviors in students, whereas teachers’ use of effective coping strategies were linked to positive student behavior and academic achievement. This highlights the importance of both equipping teachers with the toolkit to manage stress as well as fostering a positive school environment where teachers feel supported and heard. This kind of teacher support is needed now more than ever in a time where the social-emotional competencies of teachers are vital to addressing teacher burnout and promoting the most positive learning environments for students.
Our program, begin to ECSEL, educates teachers in the many ways to help to diminish their stress, such as reflective journaling, mindfulness practices, and breathing techniques. It is important that teachers remember to communicate their feelings openly and honestly with not only their students, but also their coworkers and supervisors.
Openly discussing anxiety surrounding current events in a developmentally appropriate way helps mitigate these uncomfortable feelings for teachers while also showing students that these feelings are okay, valued, understood, accepted, and felt by many. In a world filled with so much unpredictability, it’s helpful for educators to brainstorm ways to feel safe with their students, and work with colleagues in the pursuit of solutions that promote a more positive and supportive learning environment.
Teachers can create a plan of action for how they will communicate their concerns with their students and think about how they can make their classroom a safe haven from the world outside. Including students in this plan will appropriately model their own coping skills while helping students feel in control of their shared concerns. Teachers should identify and label their collective feelings as an activity and together come up with solutions to ensure that their classroom feels safe, open and supportive. Teachers should always try to remember why they chose this profession.
While the world around us all may feel scary and uncertain, let’s take solace and find joy in the critical and impactful role that all educators play in supporting and developing the emotional competencies, mental health, and well-being of the children in their care.
We, at Housman Institute, acknowledge the uncertainty of this time. We need our teachers, support our teachers, and believe in our teachers! Stay well!
Keeping Your Students’ and Your Mental Health Strong in Stressful Times
“As educators — before you can help children deal with their stress you must learn how to cope with your own stress and the feelings that accompany stress.” - Dr. Donna Housman